By Alexander Goh
Alexander is a rising sophomore at Yale-NUS and a summer intern at Skillseed. He’s interested in learning how to create ground-up sustainable change. He also likes corgis.
“These residences are like Narnia - it’s a whole world that’s always been there, but I’ve never engaged with it.”
When asked about the benefits of taking course participants outdoors, a facilitator from the Skillseed team quotes a student participant during the 2019 Yale-NUS Social Impact Bootcamp. The student was referring to the rental flats located across the road from University Town; she had walked by the cluster every week en route to the supper stretch without paying them a second glance. But all of that changed after the Skillseed team took these students out of the classroom and into the heart of the Casa Clementi residential area during our Asset-based Community Design course as part of an Endowment Portraits exercise.
Endowment Portraits are an experiential learning tool adapted by Skillseed that entails sending course participants out of the classroom and into a nearby community to construct a portrait of gifts. This happens through an immersion in the physical and social environment, as well as conversations with the community’s residents. The aim is to have participants identify the distinct strengths and culture of a community living less than a mile away from their own.
But wouldn’t a couple of Powerpoint slides with the same content work just as well? Why bother taking participants out of the classroom to suffer the sweltering Singapore sun? If there’s one thing Singaporeans love, it’s air conditioning and comfy chairs - stalwart elements of the average classroom. Removing course participants from so cosy an environment might be met with some reticence and groans (trust us, we’ve heard them all) but we’ve found that the results of this exercise absolutely justify the effort.
After years of theoretical framework development, refinement and practitioner experience, we’ve concluded that there’s a simple yet irrefutable power to training outside the classroom.
It turns the familiar unfamiliar
As any educator knows, humans have a ridiculously short attention span. It’s not our fault; we’re wired that way! It stands to reason, then, that if we want to retain the attention of our course participants, we must consistently and meaningfully engage them. One way to do this is to manipulate the training environment to introduce an element of intrigue - of unfamiliarity.
We are more attentive and curious when we’re faced with something unfamiliar, and incorporating such an element into training allows us to capture our students’ attention.
A quick way to introduce unfamiliarity into the training environment is a change of scenery. Moving away from a familiar classroom environment into an all-new, location which may be home to an entirely different community is sure to pique one’s curiosity. We’ve found that the location doesn’t have to be on the other end of the island - in fact, most of the time a place right outside the classroom suits our purposes just fine.
After all, try and think about the spaces nearest to your school or workplace. How often do you interact with the communities therein? It sounds contrived, but sometimes we just need a reason (an assignment or an activity!) to go out and talk to people. Let them tell you their stories and watch as the void decks, playgrounds and fitness parks become more than concrete and soil - they become hubs of connection between neighbours and across generations. This realm of warmth and community hides behind a veil of familiarity, and the Endowment Portraits pulls back the curtains.
The point stands: you don’t have to travel far to intrigue your participants. In fact, visiting a familiar place actually ups the intrigue factor, because participants are led to see the magic in the mundane. The places and faces right before our eyes, which we often ignore or miss out, come alive when they’re viewed with the right lens.
Almost a training sleight-of-hand, if you like. In fact, from a philosophical perspective, one might say that our job as Trainers is to make learning feel like close-up magic, where participants help create the magical moments themselves. We design the “experiment”, provide the structure and nudge them in the desired direction.
Through an activity like Endowment Portraits, we give our students the opportunity to see a familiar space with new eyes.
It creates deeper, longer memories
It’s safe to say that every one of our course participants is a very busy person.
Whether they’re students juggling co-curricular activities and exams, or professionals balancing a fat stack of work and familial responsibilities, we are fairly certain that there are many demands on their time the moment they leave the training space. This may make it difficult for them to utilize all the content we’ve taught them right away, but they will have a stash of helpful lessons and tools that they can use in the future.
At Skillseed, we want our training to impart frameworks and tools that our participants can draw upon at anytime - from one day to five years after the training. This is why we email slides to participants; so that they can access our resources whenever they need a refresher. For the same reason, we encourage Endowment Portraits and other forms of experiential learning, in order to cultivate in our participants an experiential memory of the training sessions.
If an experience is remembered on a visceral and emotional level, participants are much more likely to revisit the theoretical tools associated with that encounter. After all, one is far more inclined to remember that sweet old uncle from a nearby community than they would a series of slides on a screen. The uncle’s story will stay in their minds much longer and more deeply than an abstract framework ever could. By connecting our tools to experiential memory, we embed them in the consciousness of our participants with the hope that they’ll integrate our ideas into their lives.
It’s an essential social impact tool
Stepping beyond the boundaries of a classroom seems to be a relatively simple thing to do, but it requires thorough logistical planning and scoping. You need to trust that your participants will adopt an intelligent and respectful approach during their interactions with the community. But don’t stress too much about it; definitely give them a rundown on the do’s and don’t’s of community engagement, but here’s the thing: we’ve done this exercise a lot, and we discovered that when you trust people to step up to the plate, they tend to surprise you with their warmth and sincerity.
When the Endowment Portraits exercise works, it generates valuable, memorable and real-world experiences for course participants. Just as Lucy entered Narnia through a wardrobe, participants in the 2019 Yale-NUS Social Impact Bootcamp and SMU Pathfinders were ushered into a whole new world through the simple but understated marvel of experiential learning.
Endowment Portraits are just one of the many tools which we’ve used in conjunction with our social impact toolkit, such as Asset-Based Community Development and Design Thinking for Social Impact. Find out more about our other tools here.